Sharon Begley didn’t live to see the day she was recognized as a Pulitzer Prize finalist in Breaking News Reporting, but her loved ones already knew how she would’ve reacted.
She was the type of person who would urge her editors not to submit her work for awards. (When they submitted them, she often won.) She never liked when people made a fuss over her.
“Sharon was a totally, genuinely modest person,” said Ned Groth, Begley’s husband of 37 years. “She did not mind getting awards — she would have been proud of this recognition, even though STAT didn’t ‘win’ — but she would have preferred to just get right back to work and ignore the hoopla.”
Begley always questioned whether she deserved all the recognition she earned over her 43-year-career, which included stops at Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal and Reuters. She would often say, “Anyone could do what I do.”
“That was complete bull****, but she believed it,” Groth said.
Begley died in January at 64 due to complications from lung cancer, which made the Pulitzer recognition for STAT, a Boston-based health, medicine and life sciences news organization started in 2015, bittersweet for everyone who knew and worked with her.
She added a calm, collected and helpful presence, with tremendous experience covering science, to the group of Helen Branswell and Andrew “Drew” Joseph. Together, the three covered the onset of COVID-19 in a way that was understandable and accessible to anyone who read their work.
On New Year’s Eve in 2019, Branswell, who had experience covering Toronto’s SARS epidemic in 2003, came across a report about “unexplained pneumonias” in China, which she believed was cause for concern.
Days later, her first story about the infections linked to a seafood market in China was published, helping mark the start of U.S. media’s coverage of yet another public health disaster.
“China is not the most transparent place, but even if it were, the early days of an outbreak are always very, very chaotic,” Branswell said. “It’s just hard to find out what’s going on. And so early on, it was like, ‘what is actually happening there?’ and ‘how hard are they looking for this outside of the seafood market that they closed down?’”
Joseph, a quick-study, fast and smart reporter, would soon begin his work on the early COVID-19 coverage, bringing young, curious energy to discussions with his veteran colleagues. Begley, who sat next to Branswell and back-to-back with Joseph in STAT’s newsroom, was the guiding light who could always step back and examine the big picture — an imperative addition to the coverage of a virus that was as confusing to the public eye as they came.
“Sharon is just an extremely high-level science reporter … she didn’t focus on infectious diseases in the way that I did. But she’d been around them for long enough,” Branswell said. “She’s just very, very good. You know, she was a very, very strong reporter.”
Begley’s strong reporting was on display when she wrote a story about the possible courses the disease could take, one of the first stories of its kind at the time. She circled back around with a story about how early, widely criticized travel restrictions actually bought the world time to prepare for the global health crisis. COVID-19 impacted various demographics differently, and she was present to report on just how it did early on.
“Helen was also thinking big picture, because she knew some of the big questions that needed to be asked … Sharon, I think, was really clear-eyed in terms of some of the big picture stuff, and could sort of connect the research that was being done, even the really early research, and really sort of apply it to what it would mean for the pandemic at large, or what it would mean for the virus and public health responses,” Joseph said.
Joseph would often pivot in his chair to ask Begley a question, who always made herself available to her colleagues seeking out her wisdom, especially younger colleagues. It was always about helping them to remember to keep the reader in mind.
“I learned so much from Sharon,” Joseph said. “I can (now) keep thinking about what I’ve learned and kind of keep making sure I’m following through on all the things that I did learn from her.”
Gideon Gil, a managing editor at STAT and Begley’s direct editor, said Begley always put him at ease because she was such an unassuming and modest person and reporter. She was excellent at spotting holes in studies and arguments, a useful skill as the virus continued to evolve and the organization continued to cover it.
“She was so amazingly smart, and able to pull together just massive, massive amounts of information, and go through it and then put together a beautifully written, cogent piece that would tell you stuff you didn’t know. That was her real talent, as well as being a beautiful writer,” Gil said.
That’s why when STAT was recognized as a finalist for its early pandemic coverage by the Pulitzer Prize Board, the feeling was bittersweet. Gil believes even the legendary Begley would have cracked a smile had she been alive to witness it.
“Even though outwardly she scoffs at awards, I knew that she would have been pleased and proud. And particularly, I think, not just for herself, but for the whole staff,” he said. “She was so generous, she would have been really happy, particularly for Drew, because she mentored Drew. And so she would have been thrilled to see Drew recognized. … She had enormous respect for Helen.”
Rick Berke, STAT’s co-founder and executive editor, referred to Begley as the “Meryl Streep of journalism.” Streep is an actor who can do anything, in any role, and is respected by everyone — a nice, good person who cares about her craft. “And that’s what Sharon brought to journalism,” Berke said.
“I’m just grateful for my reporters who rose to the occasion and never stopped pushing … never stopped writing stories and finding ways to sort of become a really, very important source for millions of readers about the pandemic,” he said.
Groth said his family is gratified she was recognized. But, of course, they wish she was alive to celebrate it.
STAT editors and the Pulitzer finalist reporters plan to celebrate the recognition with a dinner at a “fairly fancy restaurant” in the seaport district of Boston, with arrangements to make a toast to the three. A staffwide celebratory Zoom call is also scheduled to take place.
“If they were in the office, they would have opened a bottle of Champagne, and everybody would have had a sip, and Sharon would’ve gotten back to work,” Groth said.
“She probably would have said, ‘Thank you, very nice,’ and gone back to the story she was working on.”